Christianity and Cultural Influences

This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 8th November 2019.

I well remember my first visit to Sub-Saharan Africa. When I reached the door of the aircraft at the airport in Accra, Ghana I was hit by two things. First was the heat; it was like a wall of heat I’d walked into. The second thing was the smell. I can’t describe the exotic smells of Africa. It was plain I’d come to a place that was very different from home. Glasgow had never smelt as exciting as this.

I was working with MISSIO Scotland at the time and I was there to discover how we were helping the growing Church in Ghana. We were met by Mgr. Roger who took us to his home area of Bolgatanga in the far north of the country. While we were there we visited the home of the local chief and his extended family. His home was a small compound of mud huts. At the entrance to the compound I noticed two strange structures. I asked what these could be and was told that they were where animals were sacrificed to the various gods.

Sacrificial tables in Ghana

But surely these people were Christian, Catholics indeed? The answer to this was very instructive. When a family converted to Christianity one member would not convert but remain with their old religion. That person would continue to offer sacrifice for the family to the old gods; just in case.

That made me think about being a Catholic in Scotland. Have we thrown off all the old pagan beliefs entirely? What about all those superstitions we still cling on to and whose origins have been forgotten? If a black cat crosses your path do you still get a shiver down your spine? If you spill the salt do you still toss a pinch of salt over your shoulder?

Think about the pagan gods that still exist in our calendar; January is named after the god Janus, March is named after Mars, the god of war. Thursday is named after Thor, the Norse god, not the Marvel Comics hero.

By now some of you may be suspecting that I’ve lost the place. “Why is he going on about all this old stuff?” you may ask. Well, I think this is pertinent to some of the debate going on in the Church today. Pope Francis is using the Amazon Synod to examine how we, as a church, can respond to the needs of those in South America whose remoteness makes it difficult for the Church to reach out to them. They are looking at the possibility of married men being priests.

This has provoked many to respond in defence of the traditional position of the Church that priests should be celibate and to cast doubts on the validity of the faith of those in these remote areas. There is a suspicion that these strange people are still really pagans at heart; not like us. So how do we tell if someone is really Catholic?

Well, first of all they have to be Christian; they have to be a follower of Jesus Christ. That entails trying to live according to His teaching. By that measure British society would not qualify as Christian as our laws do not respect the gift of human life. To be Christian we need to try to follow Jesus’ command to love God and love our neighbour. You could say that Jesus was not a Christian as He was not a follower of Himself. Jesus was a Jew and his religious practice was Jewish.

In the tribal areas up the Amazon the culture is not that of Scotland. It is expected of men to be married. An unmarried man would not be regarded as a figure of authority. But even in the UK we have recognised married priests. When Anglican priests felt compelled to leave the Anglican Church as a result of the decision to have women priests they were welcomed into the Catholic Church along with many of their parishioners. They could be accepted into the Church as they accepted the authority of the Pope. That’s how we know we are Catholics.

It’s comforting to think that we get baptised as a child and we are in the Church for life. While the Church may not reject the baptised many of those baptised as children grow up to drift away from the Church. Are they still Catholics if they are not practicing? The reality is that many people drift in and out of the Church. Many still carry the outward signs of being a Catholic in their adherence to a ‘catholic’ subculture. How does the Church respond to those of a different culture?

This is a problem the Church faced in its earliest days. When Paul went to Antioch to spread the Good News he did not restrict his preaching to the Jews. He made converts among the pagans who were moved by the Holy Spirit. This caused a great controversy. The early Christians were Jews who still followed their Jewish religious practice. They identified their faith in Jesus with their Jewish culture and could not accept that one could be a follower without adopting all the trappings of Judaism.

The apostles had to rule on this dispute. They recognised that conversion was the work of the Holy Spirit and that these new converts were therefore chosen by God. They ruled that the pagan converts could be members of the Church and only had to follow simple rules against idolatry, fornication and abstaining from the meat of strangled animals. It seems to be then that Christianity was recognised as something from the Jewish tradition but not something of that tradition, it was a new Church.

It seems to me, then, that the Church must be open to people of many different cultures and has a duty to make it possible for the Amazonian people to play a full part in the Church. The apostles’ decision also points us to the role of the Holy Spirit. Africans I met told me that the missionaries did not bring God to Africa. God was working among the people before the missionaries came. The missionaries brought the Gospel. The Church has to remember that evangelisation is the work of the Holy Spirit and we must follow His lead. We are not the driving force in spreading the Word. We merely follow where the Holy Spirit leads us.

Why Are You So Angry?

This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 11th October 2019.

Have you noticed how angry people are these days? Television news programmes repeatedly show us scenes of angry confrontations. Debates seem to have changed from people putting reasoned arguments into angry shouting matches. Angry crowds have been on the streets venting their feelings at politicians and anyone who is willing to disagree with them. The focus of all this anger seems to be on Brexit. There are angry voices complaining that the referendum was not proper and there are opposing angry voices which claim they were promised that we would leave and we are still here.

Anger is a natural human emotion. It can be seen as the body’s way of dealing with a threat. Anger can cause an increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure and increased levels of adrenaline. These are just what the body needs to fight against an aggressor or to run away. Anger, in other words, can save your life. Unfortunately it can also do the opposite and have severe effects on your well-being.

I recall a weekend trade union training course in negotiation (it was called a ‘combat school’ but that’s another story) in Manchester where we were taught to use anger to some effect. This was not about shouting and bawling at the management it was a technique to use when negotiations met a road block. Suddenly showing anger, not violently, could cause a change in perception that made the discussion move on. I used this once, many years later, in defending an employee who was being disciplined for coming to work smelling of drink. It shifted the discussion to the employer’s duty of care to the employee and resulted in a positive course of action that benefited both.

The power of anger to shift the focus has been well recognised by some politicians. Much of the anger we see in the political arena today has been deliberately incited by those who wish to whip up support from people who had not been supporters before. By threatening to pick up a rifle and fight for their cause a politician can elevate their argument to the level of a crisis. It gives out the message that this is a critical threat that must be opposed. Anger breeds anger.

It’s not just in the field of politics that we see anger being displayed. Anger is the response of choice in cases of sexual abuse of women by powerful men as we see in the ‘Me Too’ movement. Clerical sexual abuse has brought an angry response across the world. Anger among those who have been abused is understandable. The prominent feeling seems to be one of disappointment rather than anger among the faithful who feel betrayed. Displays of anger can be useful. Anger can get things done. Anger has its downside too.

Road rage is one symptom of anger that has gone out of control. A road rage incident can be triggered by someone making a simple mistake in driving, someone behaving selfishly on the road or someone just getting frustrated by delays. We have even seen disputes over parking spaces resulting in fights and even deaths. Anger has taken over, adrenaline is pumping into the bloodstream and violence is the result. Lives can be changed forever or even ended.

During the Presidential Elections in the USA we saw Donald Trump whip up the crowd against his opponent Hilary Clinton with the chant ‘Lock her up!’ Mrs. Clinton was not guilty of any crime but the crowd angrily shouted, “Lock her up.” Anger can cause us to bypass rational thought. Angry chants in a crowd can take on a life of their own. Once you get people angry you can get them to do all sorts of things, even elect you as President of the USA.

Jesus could be angry too. We know that He angrily threw the money changers out of the temple. This was not a normal response of his. He chose to display anger to make a point. That’s an example of controlled anger. The money changers must have been shocked because Jesus was normally a preacher of love. Anger is the opposite of love. They would have been used to their Roman overlords being angry and just accepted it as how things were. A normally peaceful man suddenly being violently angry would have had a much greater effect.

So, is there any place for anger in the Church? If we look at what’s happening in the Church today we find anger where we least expect it. If the message of the Church is ‘love God and love your neighbour’ would we expect to find anger here? Perhaps in the confessional where we admit to our worst sins we might get an angry response. I’ve never experienced anger there. What I have found is sympathy and forgiveness.

If not in the confessional, where could we find anger? Strangely, it seems we can expect anger from bishops, cardinals or theologians. Their anger seems to be directed at the Holy Father. Pope Francis has spread the message of love and reconciliation since his election. Why would this provoke an angry response?

I’ve been reading some of the things that Pope Francis is being accused of and I’ve been looking to see where these accusations are coming from. It seems to me that there is a very right wing element in the Church in the USA. There seems to be a lot of anger coming from that quarter, aimed straight at the Pope. Some even question the validity of his election. Some even question the validity of the Church after Vatican II. I’ve read some comments from America that suggest that the Mass in the vernacular is not a valid Mass. It’s all angry stuff.

It’s not just the content of the criticism that bothers me, it’s the angry tone. That’s what makes me feel uneasy about all this. Christ’s message is all about love. The Church’s message is about love because we are the followers of Christ. All love comes from God. Anger, real anger not just irritation, is the opposite of love. So where does that come from and why?  The clue lies in the writings of Saint Peter.

Be calm but vigilant, because your enemy the devil is prowling round like a roaring lion, looking for someone to eat. Stand up to him, strong in faith and in the knowledge that your brothers all over the world are suffering the same things.

1 Peter 5: 8,9

That is a warning aimed at all of us; laity priests and religious. It is easy to forget that the devil stalks the Earth. If we forget he is there we become easy prey. Just as Jesus continues His work on Earth through us, so does the devil. We don’t see evil events committed by a cloven hoofed demon. The evil we see is committed by human beings influenced by the devil. If I was the devil (I’m not applying for the job) I would attack the bulwarks of the Church; the priesthood, the religious and the family. To those who say that Pope Francis is not following a traditional line and is associating with sinners I would reply that I’ve seen that before somewhere. That is exactly what Jesus did. If Pope Francis is copying Jesus then I’ll go along with that. I’m a traditional enough catholic to believe that Papal elections are the work of the Holy Spirit and Francis was chosen by God for good reasons. Let’s all avoid anger and spread the love.

Loneliness – My Column full text

This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on 12th July 2019.

I was recently in the Braes of Glenlivet attending the annual Scalan Mass. Luckily the weather was kind and we enjoyed sunshine although the wind was rather cold. It’s a long time since I had visited the area and driving from place to place I remarked on the distance between neighbours. This is a feature of rural life we tend to forget. There is no chance of nipping round the corner to the shop if you run out of milk here.

Loneliness in the farming community has been highlighted recently. Farms are no longer places where the work is done by manual labour. Farms don’t have crowds of farmhands pitching in to get the work done. Mechanisation has taken over much of the hard labour but also makes farming a more isolated occupation. The psychological effects of isolation take their toll on health and lifespan.

I wondered if I could adapt to living in relative isolation like country folk. When the children were young we enjoyed holidays here. Getting away from the bustle and noise was refreshing but that was only for a short time. We were soon home enjoying a less lonely existence.

Of course I’m thinking of ourselves living near family and friends with neighbours close by. That is not the reality that many people experience living in our towns and cities. Recent surveys have found that more and more homes are occupied by one person. There are many reasons for this. Among older people the death of a spouse leaves the widow alone in their home. Younger people leave home, often moving away to work, and find themselves alone in a flat in an unfamiliar city.

Marriage breakup results in one household becoming two single occupier households. Young people who have to leave care find themselves living alone without the support they have been used to. Strangely, in a modern society where technology has given us the means to communicate across the world instantly, loneliness is becoming a major problem. The human need to contact others is often not being met.

Now you might think this is a social problem and I’m going off topic in a Catholic paper. I would suggest that if we take a closer look we might find that this is at the root of our religion. Admittedly there is nothing in the Ten Commandments about loneliness and I can’t remember anything in the Catechism about it. However if we go back to the very start, the book of Genesis, where we see how God created the world we get a picture of what God intended for us.

In Chapter two we get a description of the Garden of Eden and all the resources God puts there to meet man’s needs, water and plants. God fashions man out of the earth and breathes life into him. Then, when had settled man in the garden He looked at what he had done and decided something was missing.

“Yahweh God said ‘It is not good that man should be alone. I will make him a helpmate.’”

Genesis 2: 18

Now we often take this passage and find in it the message that it is natural for man and woman to be a couple. I’m just looking at the first part where God plainly tells us that it is not good for man to be alone. It’s clearly not God’s intention that we should be alone and Genesis is giving the Church a clear message about loneliness.

So what can the Church do to combat loneliness? The first thing I notice is that the Church instructs us to attend Mass on a Sunday. This clearly brings us into contact with other people on a regular basis. There we meet people who we have something in common with and provides the opportunity to arrange other contacts. Sunday Mass is not the controlling burden some might imagine, it is a positive step in preventing loneliness. When I was younger there were all sorts of Church organisations that sprung from this. There were societies for women, for men and for the young, all of them bringing us into contact with others.

Times have changed and much of this activity has died away. The nature of parish life has changed with many people attending Mass in other parishes and not getting involved in their own parish. I must confess to being part of that problem. We moved house a couple of years ago, just along the road. That put us just over the parish boundary. Because we have various roles in the parish we continue to attend our original church. We need to rethink how our parishes respond to the growing problem of loneliness.

A good example of what can be done is in our parish in Coatbridge. We have a tearoom in the hall behind the church. The tearoom is open every day after the ten o’clock mass and stays open ‘till late in the afternoon. Because the church is on the main street the tearoom is a convenient meeting place for all sorts of people. It is staffed by volunteers and provides a lunch at minimal cost. People can meet friends there and sit all day with a cup of tea and nobody asks them to move. It is a warm place where people of all religions or none can find a friendly welcome.

Our parish priest has an eye for lost souls. Many people have gone in to the tearoom, knowing nobody and before long they have a job to do. Soon they can be part of the volunteer staff keeping the tearoom going for the benefit of others. This is the real answer to loneliness, including people. At Mass we are invited to include the person beside us at the Sign of Peace. It’s a simple act, a handshake and a smile. I was surprised recently to see someone on Twitter complaining that he was expected to do this. He claimed he would refuse take part. How many of us are unhappy about the Sign of Peace? Do we just give a quick handshake or do we make eye contact? Do we smile? Is there any warmth behind the gesture we make? Now I’ve said this before and it is true. We will never know how our words and actions have an effect on other people. We don’t know what’s going on in someone else’s head and the right word or gesture at the right moment can make a big difference to someone who is struggling. God decided it was not right for Adam to be lonely. Perhaps it’s time we all came to the same conclusion and opened up to others.


I’ve been planning three journeys this year. I’m going up to the Scalan mass in June then in July I’m going to Benbecula for an ordination. I’m no sooner home from that than I’m off to Canada to visit my son and his family. I used to enjoy journeys but I don’t find them so interesting now. Maybe I’m getting old. (You don’t need to agree with that too quickly)

I don’t enjoy driving on long journeys on busy roads. The traffic is heavy and you really need to keep a good lookout for people doing foolish things. You don’t get a chance to see what’s around you. Flying is no better. Our flight to Canada will entail going to Manchester, the only way we can get a direct flight to Vancouver. Glasgow to Vancouver was always popular but that’s gone. Long waits at airports are a real pain.

We go on journeys to find something. I’m going to the Scalan to find and celebrate a little bit of our history. The other journeys are to catch up with family and find out how they are living. Most of all I suppose I’m going on journeys to find something about myself. It used to be fashionable to go on a journey to find yourself. The Beatles went to India to spend time with the Maharishi and find themselves. That puzzled me at the time. I thought that was strange to look for yourself in a place you had never visited before..

I’ve since realised that they were probably right. When you move out of your normal environment and encounter different people in different cultures it shows up aspects of your own life you took for granted. Travelling in Africa I’ve encountered people who would give you their last cup of water or bowl of rice. That made me question my own commitment to others. I might give some spare money to a charity but these people literally gave away all they had.

Young people are often encouraged to take a ‘gap year’ to find themselves before getting into work. The emphasis is all about ‘me’. We are encouraged to empower ‘me’. To achieve our potential we must concentrate on ‘me’. We are in a modern cult of ‘me’. We have become the focus and centre of our own lives. I think this is a mistake

Life is a journey. Not just cradle to grave but a journey from being a baby knowing nothing growing to discover the world and our place in it. Some have a long journey and some have a short one. Do we get tired of the problems we encounter and miss the interesting things on the way? Life throws up problems that can threaten to overwhelm us and we worry so much we risk missing the important stuff. It can be easy to miss finding out who we really are. Sometimes we are defined by where we live or the job we do. Sometimes it’s about what we own. All of these miss the real ‘me’.

Now I never remember the words of songs but one phrase that has stuck in my memory from the sixties is “You’re so vain I bet you think this song is about you.” I think that sums up the cult of ‘me’. If I focus completely on me then I’m missing out on everything else and because I don’t exist in isolation I’m missing out on part of myself.

I exist as part of something much greater. In John’s gospel we find Jesus explaining just that.

“I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty; for cut off from me you can do nothing.”

John 15: 5

So the real you is not just the person I see on the train in the morning, making your way to work, coming home and putting your feet up. You are really part of Christ’s being, part of His work in bringing His kingdom to reality on Earth. Our journey through life is part of that great work. Whether we live in a one bedroom flat or a fifty room mansion is irrelevant. Whether we owe money to the bank or own the bank makes no difference to the real importance of our lives.

Losing sight of that is one of the great tragedies of our times. Our society measures the worth of a person by their wealth, position or celebrity. The poor can be ignored but the rich must be listened to. The media seek out the opinions of celebrities more often that finding people of intellect when reporting events and the great questions of our time.

When we deny the presence of Christ in our lives we reduce human life to that of a commodity we can seek or dispose of as we please. The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children reported that in Scotland 13,286 unborn children were aborted in 2018. The National Records of Scotland tell us that the most common cause of death in Scotland in 2017 was Ischaemic heart disease: 6,727deaths.

As we can see abortion is almost twice as lethal as heart disease yet those unborn children are not counted in the statistics. Is that because we might be victims of heart disease ourselves? Do I focus on what might affect me because my life is important and the unborn are not? As a society we certainly seem to have cut ourselves off from God. Cut off from God do we achieve nothing?

We live in an age of great technological advances and of great wealth. Has that helped us to solve the problems of our time? We certainly see advances in medicine, combating diseases that swept the earth in the past. Are we happier now? Some of us live longer, happier lives but we live in a world that seems to be facing growing problems that we might actually be causing.

We see mass movements of migrant trying to escape danger and find a better life. The world’s oceans are predicted to rise and flood coastal cities. The air we breathe is polluted by the vehicles we drive around in. (I confess to driving one of those vehicles.) Scientists warn us that we are changing the planet so that it will not sustain life.

We don’t seem to have achieved much. We don’t seem to have achieved happiness as measured by our society’s values. We are not rich enough, beautiful enough, popular enough or whatever. Only by Gods measure can we see the real value we have.

So when you are trying to find the real you please bear this in mind. It’s not all about ‘me’ it’s about ‘us’. You are important because you are a branch on that vine. You are so important that God sent His only Son to die for you. If God values you so highly why would you even consider the popular values of today?

No The Pope is Not a Heretic

This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 10th May 2019

I’ve been reading a lot about criticism of Pope Francis. I find it worrying because the criticism is coming from within the Church. It’s coming from high levels within the hierarchy. I find it strange because ordinary people like me seem to be very happy with the Pope and take comfort in what he is reported to say.

What sort of things is the Pope saying that seems to cause concern and who are concerned? Some bishops and even cardinals have expressed concern that Pope Francis’ statements on people whose family arrangements are, shall we say unconventional, may run counter to the teaching of the Church. These would mainly be about those who have divorced and remarried. The Church does not recognise divorce since it is concerning a sacrament, matrimony. You can’t just undo a sacrament.

The Church does recognise that some marriages fail because they were not complete in the first place. Where the conditions for marriage were not met the marriage is invalid and can be annulled. The problem would not be obvious at the time of the marriage but subsequent events may show this to be the case. Unfortunately the annulment process is not well known or understood among most Catholics and the annulled marriage would normally be dissolved in a divorce to meet the legal requirements of civil marriage law.

The resulting confusion and the need to get out of a difficult situation can leave many people in a difficult situation. A subsequent remarriage is not recognised by the Church and their irregular situation leaves the new couple cut off from the sacraments. They can’t go back to a former situation and they can’t walk away from their new family. They find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

Pope Francis has also caused concern by his comments about homosexual people. He has stated that being homosexual is not a sin. That is to correct a misconception held by many Catholics. His treatment of priests involved in sexual abuse has caused concern, giving the impression that he tolerates this behaviour. Now a letter has been issued by a number of theologians and senior churchmen suggesting that the Pope is guilty of heresy.

Now theologians are highly trained in Church doctrine. They are the people best placed to interpret scripture and pronounce on the teaching of the Church. There are a number of prominent theologians in the Church but they do not always agree with each other on the finer points of doctrine. I am not a theologian and am in no way qualified to make pronouncements on doctrine. How am I to respond to the criticisms of the Holy Father?

As a scientist, faced with a decision I would look at the evidence and refer to the opinions of experts. However, in matters of theology I can’t claim to understand enough to take that route. The only option open to me is to look to examples in scripture. Are there any instances in the gospels that would clarify this situation?

The best option is to look at what Jesus did. The theologians and senior churchmen are concerned with the laws of the Church as they should be. If we look at the Gospels we see that, quite often, Jesus was accused of breaking the rules. Observance of the Sabbath was very important for the Jews. Jesus fell foul of the Jewish authorities by curing the blind and lame on the Sabbath. This was a clear breach of the letter of the law.

Is there ever an excuse for breaking the law? One of the most serious commandments is ‘Thou shalt not kill’ but exceptions are made. You could kill someone in defence of your own life or in defence of your country. Would stealing food to prevent someone from starving to death be a sin? The Commandments and the laws of the Church are there to lead us to an ideal. They describe how life should be lived but the realities of life can put us in situations where we have to choose between two evils. The Church does not expect us to be able to solve an impossible puzzle but to do our best to choose what is least harmful.

Take the example of the pilot whose aircraft goes out of control. He refuses to eject and save his life by parachute so that he can steer the plane away from a school full of children. Should he be condemned for committing suicide or rewarded in Heaven for saving lives? We don’t always expect the rules to be obeyed. The laws of the Church are intended for our good and need not be obeyed if they cause us harm.

The Holy Father’s critics accuse him of being supportive of sinners and so undermining the teaching of the Church. Logically that can be seen to be the case. However, it seems to me that Pope Francis is showing compassion for sinners and people in difficult circumstances. He has good examples to justify this.

We are all aware of the passage in John’s gospel where Jesus is confronted by the scribes and Pharisees who brought a woman who was caught in adultery. They were putting Him to the test to see if he would uphold the law that stated that she should be stoned to death. Jesus’ reply was,

“If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”

John 7: 7

When the accusers had melted away he turned to the woman,

“’Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one, sir’ she replied. ‘Neither do I condemn you’, said Jesus ‘go away and don’t sin any more’.”

John 7: 10, 11

I noticed two things about this encounter. Firstly, it is the woman who is to be stoned, there is no mention of the man. Secondly, Jesus does not condone the woman’s behaviour but does not condemn her. That is what we would expect of Jesus, his mission was to save sinners, not condemn them. He instituted the Church to continue this work. It is the Church’s role to save and not to condemn.

Pope Francis seems to be living out Jesus’ instruction to be compassionate.

“Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate. Do not judge, and you will not be judged yourselves; grant pardon and you will be pardoned.”

Luke 6: 36,37

Being a sinner myself, I take great comfort in that quote knowing that I am depending on God’s mercy for my salvation. I don’t think Pope Francis is a heretic. I think he gives us a choice; are we to be sticklers for the law like the Pharisees and condemn others or are we to be like Jesus and show compassion to our fellow sinners?

Is The Pope a Heretic?

There are all sorts of accusations circulating in the Catholic Church. Some have claimed that Pope Francis is guilty of heresy. Can this be true?

Check out my column in this week’s Scottish Catholic Observer. Get your copy in your local parish or, if that’s not possible, you can get the full text here next week (17th May 2019).

The Value of Human Life

This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 19th April 2019.

I was at funeral the other day

The occasion was a very sad one; this was a child’s funeral. Matthew was just under two years old when he died. Deaths always come as a shock but this one was long expected. Just after he was born the Doctors had warned his parents that Matthew would not live very long. All the delights of watching a child grow normally were to be denied to them.

The family gave Matthew all the care he needed and his needs were great and constant. They had to learn how to use the life sustaining equipment when they brought him home as the hospital could do no more for him. He was frequently rushed to hospital in the middle of the night to deal with serious problems.

At his funeral our parish priest told us that often people in this situation will ask “Why did God let that child die?” and confessed he did not have the answer. Who knows the mind of God? I thought of another question some have asked me, “Why did God allow that child to live? Surely a kind God would not allow the child to live with no hope?” Their question annoyed me at the time but I realised that day that their question was the right question, one whose answer I learned at the funeral.

That question reflects the values of our society today. It assumes that a child will have purpose when it becomes an adult. Only as an adult will it have a real value. Why did God make that child? Luckily there is an answer to that question. My old catechism tells me that God made me to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this world and be happy with Him in the next. That applies to us all.

How do we get to know God? It seems to me that we get to know God through love. All love comes through God and it is the love we find in other people that shows us God’s love. Matthew experienced love from his family, their friends and from the many doctors and nurses who tended to him. The turnout at his funeral mass bears witness to that. Though he would not have been able to put that into words, Matthew came to know God as we all do, through the love shown by others.

Matthew was not able to speak but his smile was a great indication for his love. It was particularly obvious when he was held by his grandfather or heard his voice that this was someone he loved. He wouldn’t have been able to mention God but surely we show our love for God in our love for our fellow man.

What about serving God? Matthew wasn’t able to do anything for himself so how could he serve God? What, in fact, do we mean by serving God? It would be wrong to assume that God needs us to do anything for Him. God is all powerful and we are able to do things as a result of God’s gifts. I believe that God has a purpose for each of us. Some may have a notable purpose like Pope Francis whose purpose is to lead the Church. Most of us have purposes that are not so obvious. Take examples form the Stations of the Cross.

Simon of Cyrene was given the task of helping Jesus carry the cross so that He didn’t die on the way to Calvary. Veronica was given the task of wiping the face of Jesus. Neither of these tasks would be regarded as spectacular but we constantly remind ourselves of these simple tasks because God’s purpose for us is generally simple but important.

So what was Matthew’s purpose? Matthew couldn’t do anything. He could only be. Why would that be an important purpose? If I stand back and look at our society today one thing stands out. Our belief in the sanctity of life is under attack. Abortion has been legal in this country since the sixties. It was sold as a law to end the difficult cases of pregnancies that threatened the mother’s life. What it rapidly became is a law that destroys countless lives for the convenience of the parents. It doesn’t stop there. Some want to extend the time when abortions can be carried out. In New York recently they changed the law to allow abortions up to the point of birth.

Now we are being denied the right to have an opinion on the matter of abortion. Laws are being introduced to prevent those who value life from bothering people outside abortion clinics by praying. How dare we pray? How dare we value life?

At the other end of life we witness pressure to allow us to assist people to die. That started off as an argument about people who are terminally ill. No treatment can help them. Now we have seen people being helped to die because they are going deaf ( a musician ), are clinically depressed and even children being allowed to choose to die even though they are not terminally ill. It would seem you can be helped to die because you are fed up with life.

Life is God’s greatest gift. Followers of Christ believe that it is for God to decide when we will die. Killing is not an option. Medicine grew as a profession to save and prolong life. We have ambulances to save lives. We devise systems to allow us to cross the road in safety to save lives. The law requires us to wear a seatbelt in a car to save lives. I’m at a loss to see how all that squares with the notion that the unborn child’s life is not just as important.

Matthew’s life was testimony to the love of his parents and friends. His life was a reminder, a timely reminder that our society is on the wrong track. By his short life he has spoken out against our disregard for God’s gift of life. Anyone who was at his funeral was left in no doubt that Matthew’s life was not of no consequence but called out that we have got it wrong.

That was God’s purpose for Matthew and he served his God and will be happy with him in Heaven. He challenges us to do the same.